A lifestyle shot by Cass Bird, a hot current editorial
and advertising photographer
A friend said the other day, "these are great times for photography."
I've been being a little persnickety about semantics lately, I just realized, but my immediate, unthinking response was, "...well, for taking snapshots maybe. But for photography, well..." What set me off was the way he phrased it, I guess. These are great times for photographing. These are great times for photo technology. These are great times for photo sharing....
Surely, for taking snapshots, things have never been better. Cameras are ubiquitous and accessible. Technically good snapshots, in full color and "sharp," like people like 'em, have never been more effortless to make.
It's a great time for sharing. A friend of mine just bought an X-E2 and is kinda over the moon about how it can send JPEGs directly to his phone, from whence he can zap it immediately to whomever he wants. The late John Szarkowski once said that there are more photographs in the world than bricks; he was exaggerating. Now, the astronomical numbers of photographs posted on Facebook make it seem like we've left bricks far behind and a better "stretch" number for an exaggerated metaphor might be the number of grains of sand on earth. Pretty soon there will be more photographs that the number of brain cells in humans.
Lily and Richard, Toronto, Ontario, by Davina + Daniel, highly in-demand wedding photographers
It's a pretty good time for our wallets, at least for those who are careful with the money and tend to shoot a lot, because there are no more film, developing, and printing costs. Assuming you have the computer, the camera or camera-featured device, and a few cards, you'll pay the same to make 10 photographs or 10,000. (Don't quibble; that's not strictly true but it's essentially so.)
It's surely a splendid time for camera hobbyists, what with the constant flow of new products and the march of progress from extremely crude to extremely impressive in digital technology.
But for photography itself? Overall, as a whole? Hmm.
I always saw "photography" in its highest, most aspirational form as a means of expression or a means of communication—by particular individuals. By which I mean the work of a person that is somehow valuable and unique because of what they have to show us or tell us, and how they do it. And interacting—influencing each other, creating coherent trends and directions, and attached to the underpinnings of culture—a literature, communities, scholarship, and so on.
Jason Florio and Helen Jones-Florio crowd-funded a documentary
expedition to the River Gambia
A reasonable amount of "shared experience" within the audience is certainly helpful too. Note that this is a lot different than "photo sharing"; here I'm talking about all people sharing one thing. When many people all experience the same thing, or are familiar with the same thing, it gives people something to build on when they're discussing things. If I say "Edward Weston," for example, almost everyone reading this will have at least a vague notion of who I'm referring to and what his work looks like. That's important in culture—that we have a shared corpus of works and important figures, buttressed with criticism and books and exhibits. It's what creates the culture of the art, one might say.
I'm not trying to damn everything that's being done these days. Far from it—it would even be possible to argue that more great photography is being done now than ever before.
It's just that nobody's really quite sorted out how to create a true culture out of the digital tsunami yet. The culture is atomized and chaotic. There are a bazillion micro-cultures, sure, but that's not quite the same thing then, is it? The museums have increasingly made themselves into bastions, basically just yet another specialized subculture. Book publishing is healthy but the reach of most particular books is very limited. Few "big names" that might provide a shared context are emerging. Demotic snapshooting has a presence in the mainstream culture (witness the "selfie" craze), but no kind of serious photography has much presence in pop culture right now. That I can see, at least.
And, crucially, the incredible amount of noise makes it tough for even dedicated workers to get noticed and/or to find any support. And when that's true—when even really good work doesn't get much attention or reward—then not only do the talented people pack up their talents and go do something else, but people considering where to apply their talents don't see a fertile field, and they turn somewhere else too. Neither of those things are very good for the art.
A great time for photography: well sorta kinda maybe; yes and no. Depends how you want to parse it.
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Featured Comments from:
G Dan Mitchell: "I don't think that people sort out how to create a culture. The culture itself emerges organically from whatever is going on in a time and place, and we only recognize it as a culture retroactively.
"I suspect that we are actually in the midst of the creation of that new culture and, as has generally been the case in the past, that the result will be something wonderful that we haven't quite yet figured out."
Mike replies: Broadly speaking you're right, but I'm really not so sure in this case. The history of photography—the coherent, academic history—can in one sense be cast as a constant struggle by many individuals to deliberately cultivate a culture. It's easy to take it for granted once it exists, but a great many people worked very hard to win for photography its rightful place in the panoply of human creative endeavor, and to assert that it can be something more than just a craft and a utilitarian tool—that it can be used for communicating complex meaning and for investigating the truth and the mystery of the world, and for creating expressive works of conscious authorship.
No one person was in control of the culture that evolved, but that doesn't mean that a lot of people didn't give a great deal to the effort. Photography's many champions really had to win many concessions in succession: from the struggle to be considered an art from the 1880s to the 1930s, to the struggle to gain respect for the authorship of works, to the struggle to gain acceptance to academia in the 1960s, to the struggle for a place in the museums, and to build a coherent critical apparatus and a literature, and to be valued as a commodity in the art market. Each step of the way has been in some sense a fight. To say that culture evolves is true, but to insinuate that it just happens of its own accord, willy-nilly, and isn't worth working toward is to ignore the actual evolution and history of the medium.